Civilization and Mass Destruction


28 April 2009
By Mira Patel, Cornell University, 2011

Samuel Huntington argues that the wars of the future will occur along cultural fault lines; literally, we will have a “clash of civilizations” instead of wars of ideology or politics. Such civilizations include “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African” (Huntington 1993). Call him crazy, but he may have a point. The world is getting smaller, and people are noticing that they are inherently different from their neighbors culturally, and tend to identify more with their civilizational kinsmen. Broad fundamentalist religious movements are on the rise, replacing political ideology with an alternatively powerful binding force. What does this mean for Western security?

Traditionally, the “haves” of nuclear technology under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have been Western states, with the privilege of maintaining their own nuclear arsenals while promoting sanctions and inspections against other states considering proliferation (Huntington 1993). Thus, Huntington explains that “the conflict between the West and the Confucian-Islamic states focuses largely, although not exclusively, on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, ballistic missiles and other sophisticated means for delivering them, and the guidance, intelligence and other electronic capabilities for achieving that goal.” According to his clash of civilizations hypothesis, could Islamic states put aside their sectarian differences, and come together against the dominant West? After all, it was an Indian Prime Minister who said quite bleakly in the aftermath of the Gulf War, “Don’t fight the United States unless you have nuclear weapons.” Are we facing a nuclear threat?

Probably not. While Huntington’s hypothesis may seem somewhat convincing, the Middle East is still deeply divided along sectarian lines. Vali Nasr makes a persuasive argument for Shi’a consolidation of power in Iraq, a consequence of the destruction of an oppressive system that had divided a majority group and repressed any form of coalitional ties. He forecasts that future power struggles in Iraq will be largely along sectarian lines (Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd), and that the large Shi’a majority will hold a great deal of power (Nasr 2006). States in the Middle East are divided along similar sectarian lines: Saudi Arabia is Wahhabi (a type of Salafi), Iran is Shi’a, Egypt is Sunni-three major Middle Eastern centers of power and historical significance are divided entirely by sectarian differences. Thus, the Islamic civilization, as Huntington puts it, must overcome differences that have caused conflict and friction in the past in order to rise up against the West-highly unlikely.

Additionally, the Pan-Arab cause has been tried, and it has failed. I refer to Arab nationalism because it was the only legitimate attempt at unifying at least a part of what Huntington refers to as the Islamic civilization. The Arab nationalist cause was undermined by tribal and religious sectarian divisions as well as Islamic fundamentalism of various forms (Dawisha 2003). For example, Iraq’s Shi’a majority could not overcome the suspicion that Arab nationalism was just another Sunni plot to consolidate regional power, and they partially resisted the movement (Dawisha 2003). Thus, the West has little to fear in the face of an Islamic civilizational threat in the form of weapons of mass destruction. However, could we be facing threats from individual powers in the region, for the same sentiment that Huntington underlines? That is, the frustration with the Western-Islamic asymmetry in nuclear power and the desire to balance such a threat with weapons of their own.

Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons to solidify its regional dominance and security, and yet Saudi Arabia continues on the nonnuclear path, despite the fact that a clear sectarian rival may become a “new member of the nuclear club” (Takeyh 2003). Would Saudi Arabia in turn pursue nuclear weapons to offset the regional threat? Probably not, even if it does make sense. Saudi Arabia is arguably a dominant regional power (in an insecure and volatile region) with resources worth protecting and the wealth to invest in nuclear technology, and yet, it refrains from doing so (Bahgat 2006). Why? Bahgat argues that the close bilateral ties between the Saudi monarchy and the United States owes to its nonnuclear stance. While the Saudis provide the US access to key oil supplies and maintains global oil price levels at reasonable levels, the US provides Saudi Arabia with security from external threat-a critical resource in a region characterized by sectarian divide and nations looking to develop nuclear weapons capabilities. The Saudi regime has aligned with the US on key international issues, and it is the United States’ “strong commitment to defend Saudi Arabia against external enemies [that is] a crucial factor in eliminating any consideration by the Saudis of a nuclear option” (Bahgat 2006).

Saudi Arabia is only one of a number of countries in the Middle East that may or may not pursue nuclear weapons; however, US diplomatic efforts have at least had an effect on states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, and Egypt in remaining nonnuclear (Campbell, Einhorn, and Reiss 2004). Huntington’s hypothesis seems incredulous in the face of divisions within the Islamic world itself as well as variations across regimes that govern largely Muslim populations in their stances toward nuclear weapons; such characteristics make a nuclear uprising of the Islamic world against the Western world highly unlikely. Nevertheless, this does not mean the world is not at a nuclear crossroads. Perhaps the shrinking of the world is a positive thing, bringing all people to the common understanding that in the face of nuclear conflict, all of our fates are interlinked, and that nuclear proliferation must be subdued with the most effective measures possible. Of course, as Campbell et al. explain, the world is at a nuclear tipping point; either proliferation can set off a domino effect of dozens of nations initiating nuclear programs, or governments of the world can come to understand that collective security relies on shrinking the number of nuclear arsenals internationally (Campbell, Einhorn, and Reiss 2004). While we may not have to face a clash of civilizations any time soon, the potential threat of nuclear weapons proliferation looms clearly on the horizon.


Bahgat, Gawdat. 2006. “Nuclear Proliferation: The Case of Saudi Arabia.” The Middle East Journal 60(3): 421-443.

Campbell, Kurt M., Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss. 2004. The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

Dawisha, Adeed. 2003. “Requiem for Arab Nationalism.” Middle East Quarterly 10(1).

Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. “Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72(3): 22-49.

Nasr, Vali. 2006. “When the Shiites Rise.” Foreign Affairs 85(4): 58-74.

Takyeh, Ray. 2003. “Iran’s Nuclear Calculations.” World Policy Journal 20(2): 21.

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